To Succeed in Work and Life, Be Mr. T

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 9, 2013 · 34 comments

in Money & Career


Like almost every boy who grew up in the 80s, I thought Mr. T was the man. What wasn’t there to like about him? He was big, strong, and had a cool mohawk. On top of that, he starred in one of the greatest shows to come out of the 80s (The A-Team), fought Rocky, and was Hulk Hogan’s tag team partner back when the WWE was the WWF.

I’m a grown man now, but I recently discovered a new reason to want to be like Mr. T. Well, a “T-shaped” man at least. Gold chains optional.

What Is a T-Shaped Man?

Mr-T copy

A T-shaped man has depth of knowledge in one specific area (represented by the vertical stroke of the T), and a broad knowledge across multiple disciplines (represented by the horizontal stroke of the T).

As a man, you’ve probably desired a V-shaped physical body. Well there’s an ideal shape for your mental “physique” too. The T-shape.

A T-shaped man has two characteristics. First, he has a depth of knowledge and a focused expertise in one skill or discipline. This characteristic is represented by the vertical stroke of the T. Second, he has an interest in and a willingness to use a broad range of skills and disciplines outside his area of expertise. This characteristic is represented by the horizontal stroke of the T. A T-shaped man is, in short, a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of one. (See what I did there?)

The idea of the T-shaped person was first described by David Guest in a 1991 editorial about the future of computer jobs. But it was made famous by Tim Brown, CEO of the world-renowned design firm IDEO. When Tim Brown hires for his much-coveted positons, he specifically looks for T-shaped people — folks with depth of knowledge in one area like engineering, software development, and even history, but who also have demonstrated the ability to grasp other subjects and work easily across multiple disciplines.

Many of history’s most eminent men were, not coincidentally, T-shaped men. Think of Leonardo da Vinci. This quintessential Renaissance man was a master artist, but he didn’t confine himself to just art. He also studied and dabbled in anatomy, mechanics, architecture, and botany. Instead of diluting his artistic ability, his broad interests actually made him a better artist. His intense study of human anatomy allowed him to paint and sculpt some of the most life-like depictions of the human form that had ever been created up until that point in history. His interest in mechanics led him to sketch out concepts that were hundreds of years ahead of their time like tanks, helicopters, and airplanes.

For a modern example, take a look at a guy like Steve Jobs. What really stuck out to me as I read his biography last year was that despite founding one of the world’s most influential computer companies, Jobs himself didn’t have much expertise in computers or programming. Sure, he had enough technical knowledge to modify designs, but his real expertise was business. But Jobs made a conscious effort to create that horizontal stroke of broad-based knowledge by exploring different disciplines and bringing them together to solve problems. “Technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said. “It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”

The Benefits of Being a T-shaped Man


Yeah, I clean up well, don’t I? I’m more than just a tough guy, fool. Here’s why you should become a Mr. T, like me.

You’ll be ready for the jobs of the future. Our economy is shifting at a rapid rate. Jobs that were once done by humans are being outsourced to machines and computers. And I’m not just talking manufacturing jobs. Lawyers and even doctors are seeing some of their work being shifted over to computers or outsourced to other countries. If you want to thrive in the economy of the future, you’ll need to develop a skill set that will endure in changing times. According to the Institute for the Future, one of those future-proof skills is the ability to work across multiple disciplines, or in other words, being a Mr. T. Making sense of complex problems by looking at them from different disciplinary/cultural perspectives isn’t something that a computer will be able to do anytime soon, so if you want to future-proof your job, start strengthening your T-shape.

You’ll gain new insights about your area of expertise. Many great thinkers have reported reaching a key insight into their area of expertise while engaging in an activity outside of their focused interests. Einstein is said to have uncovered some his most groundbreaking insights while playing the violin. In 1870, a French doctor named Stephane Tarnier saw incubators for chicken hatchlings while visiting the Paris Zoo and was struck with some inspiration; why not use the same kind of thing on human babies to reduce the infant mortality rate of premature newborns? So he hired the zoo’s poultry-raiser to build incubator boxes large enough for human babies. His hunch was right, and we still see his basic idea at work in today’s NICUs.

Life becomes more interesting. Focusing all your time and energy on just one discipline or skill is like playing a single note over and over again on a piano. To make the music of life sound rich and beautiful, you need to bring in some variety. As we discussed in our article on lifelong learning, broadening your knowledge and skills lets you get more out of life by allowing you to interact with a wide variety of other people, boosting your leadership abilities, and deepening your experiences.

How Being a Mr. T Helped Me Create and Grow the Art of Manliness

Becoming a T-shaped man has been an essential part of the success of the Art of Manliness. When I began the site back in 2008, the skill that I had the most expertise in was writing. I can thank my intense law school writing classes for that. Because AoM was going to be comprised primarily of written content, this expertise was to my advantage. But I quickly discovered that in order to run a successful blog I would need to get acquainted with a variety of skills I knew nothing about. In short, I needed to cross my T.

For example, when I first started the site, I didn’t have the money to hire a professional web designer or programer to create the look I had in mind for AoM.  I had to do it myself. Consequently I had to learn rudimentary HTML, CSS, and PHP. After reading up on it and through lots of trial and error I was able to cobble together a decent-looking website. While I never became an expert at web design or programming, I have a basic enough knowledge that I can talk to the professionals that I now hire to work on the site with some degree of adeptness. Instead of being a passive participant in the conversation, I can actively engage with them and collaborate to create features and products that improve the experience at AoM.

The horizontal stroke on my T continues today. While I’m now in the fortunate position of being able to hire experts to work on specific aspects of the site that are outside of my core skill of writing, I still make an effort to dabble in those areas myself so I can better collaborate and work with these folks. Take my goal to create a new AoM video once a week. While I’ve hired filmmaker Jordan Crowder to take care of planning and editing these videos, in order to collaborate effectively on them, I’ve had to learn some basic filmmaking and photography skills. Boy, has it ever been a humbling experience. But I hope by broadening my knowledge and skill set, I can better serve the readers of the Art of Manliness.

How to Become a Mr. T

Gain mastery in one skill. Don’t be a “hyphen.” These are folks who flit around from one skill or discipline to the next without ever gaining competency or mastery in a specific domain. They only work on creating the horizontal stroke of the T. These folks typically don’t accomplish much in life, and Tim Brown describes them as people with empty experiences. If you want to make a dent in the world, you have to become an expert with deep knowledge in a specific area. If you’ve spent most of your adult life jumping from one interest to the next without fully immersing yourself in it, make the commitment today to focus your time and energy into creating the vertical stroke of your T by beginning your path to mastery.

Remain curious. While you’re focusing most of your time and energy in one skill or discipline, don’t lose your curiosity about related and unrelated disciplines. Make it a habit to go out of your way to talk and work with people outside of your particular department or industry. For example, if you work in product development at a company, go have lunch with somebody in customer support. You might be surprised by the insights you’ll gain from talking to them. When you meet people outside your area of expertise, ask lots of questions.

Read broadly. One of the best ways to create the horizontal stroke of your T is to read as broadly as you can. Read books and magazines from areas outside of your expertise or even your interests. If you’re a computer engineer, spend some time reading about art; if you’re a lawyer, read up on the latest developments in science and medicine. You get the idea.

Actively dabble. As we discussed in our post about becoming a life-long learner, to truly learn, you need to take action. Make it a goal to set aside a certain amount of time each week to dabble in skills outside of your area of expertise. If your expertise is in the ethereal world of the mind, spend some time this weekend working with your hands on an easy DIY project. If you spend all day working with your hands, spend an hour or two writing each week.

Increase empathyAccording to Tim Brown, empathy is an important characteristic to foster if you want to become a T-shaped person. “It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective — to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them,” says Brown. Viewing a problem from the perspective of another discipline allows you to better see how to apply your own expertise to come up with a solution. It makes collaboration across disciplines much more fruitful. One of the more interesting ways to increase your empathy, or “fellow feeling,” is to read more fiction. Studies have shown that people who read more fiction have a more developed “Theory of Mind” which is the backbone of empathy.

Are you a Mr. T? What’s your area of expertise and how do you broaden it with other interests? Share with us in the comments!

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 D April 9, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Solid post! I actually felt like clicking on an ad or something to support the site!

2 Johnny C April 9, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Thank you for sharing this, Brett and Kate. I had a falling out with a friend several years ago which ended with his argument that I have too many interests, that without focus, I will never be good. He told me to give up camera work, video editing, and music; he said I should focus on only one martial art, and that without focusing on one specialty, I would be “Jack of all trades, master of none” and should stick to my writing. Subsequently, my writing has improved precisely because of my broad interests and allows me to relate to more people than I normally would in just a writer’s circle. But as writers know, without life experience, what do you write about? Thanks again, this is a great affirmation for being a renaissance man. And because I have to say it: “I pity the fool who doesn’t recognize this!”

3 Oscar April 10, 2013 at 12:06 am

Great article (as always).

4 Alan G April 10, 2013 at 1:12 am

Great article. I have always striven to be a T person and actually used that description during an interview some years back. I think it helped since I still have that job.

I would argue that Da Vinci was more than a T-person. He was at least a Pi person and maybe an M-person. His contributions to engineering were revolutionary and his study of internal anatomy, while an offshoot of his drawing artistry, were only limited by the fact that they were illegal and could not be shared. A true idol worthy of addoration.

5 W Boerée April 10, 2013 at 1:39 am

As a young man I still haven’t mastered any trade. But my interests are broad. Even though I focus on Economics and Sociology with my study, I still enjoy reading about science, biology and physics. I can enjoy art, I play several musical instruments (bass and guitar), I draw for fun and I like to cook.

Long story short, the vertical and horizontal strokes of the T are still developing, but the overall shape is present.

6 Alyster April 10, 2013 at 2:07 am

“know something about everything and everything about something” Attributed to Thomas H. Huxley. The real question is, when can you consider yourself a master of your particular trade or skill?

7 Mato Tope April 10, 2013 at 4:02 am

From the Bible comes the quote “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.” In other words; apply all your concentration and energy on whatever lies before you.
In the past I found myself mentally shutting off when an unfamiliar subject arose or when encountering challenges outside my area of expertise. But I came across something Steve Jobs said about following your natural curiosity as you never know where it will lead. This natural curiosity is something we all have as children but often lose when we think we have found a defined role/job in life. And so we end up blinkered and living a life with narrow horizons.
I used to think the term dilettante was a derogatory one until I saw how peolpe like Leonardo, Newton etc used this broadening of their mental horizons to plumb even greater depths in their chosen discipline.
Another excellent post.

8 daca68 April 10, 2013 at 6:15 am

However if you focus on the vertical stroke, you will soon realize that it becomes a new horizontal stroke. In other words, the deeper you go on a subject, more and more complex it turns and you need to set a new vertical stoje from there. It is an endless process.

9 Keith April 10, 2013 at 6:48 am

I pity the fool who don’t appreciate this article. Thanks!

10 Lucas R April 10, 2013 at 7:19 am

This article reminds me of something a professor of mine in college used to tell our class: “Know everything about some things and something about everything.”

Great read to start the morning!

11 Steven of Chicago April 10, 2013 at 8:36 am

Great post. Just finished reading Damn Right! by Janet Lowe. In her biography of Warren Buffet’s business partner, Charlie Munger, she talks at great length about the influence Benjamin Franklin had on the growth and development of Charlie Munger. Munger attributes Franklin’s values and philosophy to Munger’s success today.

12 Rémy April 10, 2013 at 9:01 am

Nice article there. I have to say I’m a jack of all trades really. I can talk about anything, do a lot of things, but when it comes to mastery I miss it. I think I’ve thrown away my artistic skills.
Thanks to this article I’ll be a little more motivated, thank you Brett and Kate!

13 chris April 10, 2013 at 9:27 am


Consider yourself the master of an area when other people are coming to you for help in that area.

14 Kerry Trusewicz April 10, 2013 at 9:59 am

I certainly agree that a man should be invested and focused on one discipline.
I also believe a man should branch out and learn as many skills as he can cram into his mind. Specialization is for insects. We should be able to accrue a wide variety of skills and practice them all. These are my thoughts.

15 Alexander April 10, 2013 at 11:52 am

Awesome post, once again AOM! What a roll you guys are on (following the Thumos + Jack London series)! I know that I definitely need to work on my “T shape.” I have huge bulky shoulders, and a short, tiny waistline going. Thanks for the inspiration!

16 Lance April 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Here’s to hoping we are always developing our T. Of course for most of us our vertical is probably (hopefully?) our profession.

For me I’m hoping to expand my horizontal with writing among other things. In fact I’m just now learning how to crochet! I think it would be cool to make my own beanie hat. I’ll be blogging soon about it on my newly revived blog

Thanks for reminding me to be well T shaped!

17 MattfromPoland April 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Some good points here. You guys start to become the only place on the web where I can still find something relevant to enjoy (and actually complete) reading.

18 Jack Grabon April 11, 2013 at 10:42 am

Interesting post. I can definitely relate. A recent reunion with some friends from high school helped me see this as they asked me if I’m still involved with music. I had forgotten how passionate I was about it, even getting a partial scholarship to a top music college as a result of a demo tape I sent them.

While I realized that I wanted more from life than what music could offer me, I had gone quite deep with it. In fact, I have applied the skills that it taught me, such as figuring things out on my own and the art of practicing. These laid the foundation for unrelated endeavors such as learning a foreign language in my mid-20′s, building websites, etc. thus broadening my T in many ways.

Thanks for the reminder!

19 Todd @ Fearless Men April 12, 2013 at 1:04 am

I came hear for the pictures.

I walk away wanting to be a T-Shaped man.

In terms of your thoughts on being able to work across multiple disciplines, yep, I full-heartedly agree. Unfortunately I don’t think university is preparing people for this. Interestingly, what’s often most hated in college is General Ed. But broadening the horizons of students is pretty important.

20 Geoff April 12, 2013 at 1:47 am

This article brings up some great points.

For the man who has been stubbornly committed to his discipline:
Let go a little bit and press yourself to new insights.

For the man who can’t commit:
Find something that fits within your values and stop flitting from possibility to possibility!

21 Claude April 12, 2013 at 11:55 am

I loved this article, but I was expecting something about how Mr T rose from the streets to be a successful tv star and 80′s icon.

By the 3rd paragraph I was over my disappointment.

22 Midwest Joe April 12, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Part of my personal ethos:

Be somebody, or be somebody’s fool
Say your prayers
Take your vitamins
Be excellent to each other
Party-on dudes

23 Bicycle Bill April 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm

This is merely another way of describing what used to be referred to as a “renaissance man”….and a man could do far worse than to carry that status among his peers.

24 Rick April 15, 2013 at 12:44 am

For a long time I have considered myself a renaissance man, but this article makes me wonder. I have had two different careers and a degree in teaching (couldn’t find anyone wanting to hire a new 50 y/o teacher). I still pick up new interests. So would I have two or three vertical elements, or am I all about the horizontal? Besides the two careers, I would consider myself well versed in several pursuits, so are these vertical elements as well? Or am I just scattering myself all over the place?

25 Jethro April 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Great article! I’m a new reader to the blog and so far it has really enlightened me in many ways. One question tho, I’m an accounting major that is graduating this semester. How exactly am I suppose to master that? I have good grades and know my debits and credits pretty well but mastery of it would be what?

26 Mark D. April 23, 2013 at 11:51 am

Great article!

Have you checked out “Strengths Based Leadership”? Its a book put out by Gallup. It’s one of those reads that really challenges us to dig deep in our natural talents, to essecially paster those areas of natural talent while still being aware of the fact that we need to understand other areas but we do not need to master those areas too. Pretty legit. There are some videos on youtube called Trombone player wanted. They talk about the basic concept.

27 Serafin May 7, 2013 at 7:52 am

I’m tall, but not overly so.
I’m strong, but no muscle-man.
I’ve always been good at sports, but never the best on the court, field, etc.
Often times I am the smartest guy in the room, but never overwhelmingly so.
I am a master of the “broad knowledge” part of the T, but have never mastered anything in my life. Part of this is because of lack of effort; Part is because I have no idea on what I would like to focus.

Seems appropriate a T without the I is just a flatline _____________

28 tim May 8, 2013 at 6:47 am


29 Richard H. May 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Loved this article! I’m a master in my field, but definitely want to be able to know something about everything!

30 Alberto Guadarrama June 21, 2013 at 3:21 am

A most fitting article for AoM. Relevant and inspiring! Loved every word of it!

31 Jay Victor July 21, 2013 at 6:08 pm

I grew up watching the A Team so it was fun reading this article. Great idea to create a site like this.

32 Nigel July 26, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Quite a refreshing read. It is so well conceptualized and composed that I am heading straight for the ‘subscribe’ section.

33 William March 4, 2014 at 7:44 am

While, I’m new to this site…It is an excellent read each time.

34 Marty April 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm

A cross is better than a circle.

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